The clarinet does not often come out from its customary orchestral place behind the flutes and next to the bassoons. Mozart, as well as a few Romantic composers and Benny Goodman made the instrument a star in the “swing” world, but one does not often hear the range of musical styles from the clarinet heard from soloist Anthony McGill and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. NJSO conductor Jacques Lacombe programmed a concert on the theme of freedom and heroism, with clarinetist Mr. McGill representing the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a newly-commissioned work by American composer Richard Danielpour.
Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium was centered on aspects of heroism and continued a theme of the legacy of Dr. King which has been recurring throughout the season. The connection of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture to the freedom theme was immediately apparent; derived from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the overture reflected the hero Florestan’s emerging into the light for the first time after a long imprisonment. Mr. Lacombe began the overture with a stately walk by the strings, taking the music to its inevitable conclusion in triumph. Mr. Lacombe cleanly emphasized the sforzandi characteristic of Beethoven’s style, contrasting musical force with the delicate combination of flutist Bart Feller’s spool lines and light strings. Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe was able to focus on instrumental sections as necessary, moving quickly between sections and teasing with flute and oboe leading to the closing Presto.
Mr. Lacombe cited Richard Danielpour as one of his favorite American composers, and under his leadership, the NJSO has presented several of Mr. Danielpour’s works. The NJSO commission of Danielpour’s clarinet concerto From the Mountaintop was a three-way project, with the Kansas City Symphony and Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 taking part. Through this work, Danielpour depicted the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially centered on the “Mountaintop Speech” of April 1968.
In this programmatic concerto, the clarinet soloist was cast as a “minister in a Southern Baptist church” telling the life story of Dr. King. The soloist was expected to be a storyteller, and Mr. McGill clearly took the role very seriously. Beginning with a musical soliloquy, McGill evoked an atmosphere of mid-20th century jazz, with a seamless clarinet line amid Bernstein-esque rhythms. McGill demonstrated a solid feel for the music, which often pulsated among different instruments within the orchestra. His solo clarinet line was often in duet with percussion, including the unique color of the marimba and a cadenza duet with timpanist David Fein. With an ostinato from the harp and refined sound of English horn from Andrew Adelson, the music was often poignant and always in support of the soloist. McGill found a wide range of emotions from the clarinet, accompanied by varied orchestral colors, including a unified horn section and elegant cello solo commenting on the action from Jonathan Spitz.
Besides its well-known connection to Beethoven, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor of Johannes Brahms fit well into the theme of the concert with the sense of liberation conveyed in the Finale. Lacombe began the work with a commanding introduction to the first movement, marked by a steady timpani and an oboe solo from Robert Ingliss which built in intensity. The Allegro of the movement settled into a gentle flow, as the influence of Beethoven on Brahms became more evident.
Ingliss was featured again in the hymnlike and stately second movement, rising over the rest of the orchestral sound. This movement maintained a great deal of flow, led by the sensitivity of the winds. Clarinetist Karl Herman and concertmaster Eric Wyrick were also featured in the gentler inner movements. Mr. Lacombe brought out well the great string melody in the final movement, bringing the symphony to a triumphant Finale. A brisk performance of Brahms’ famous Hungarian Dance No. 5 as an encore reminded the audience at Richardson of what a spirited year it has been for the New Jersey Symphony as the orchestra’s Princeton season came to a close.